It's All About the Genes

I’m preaching to the choir, but to repeat for the nth time, climate change promises greater weather unpredictability and extreme temperatures worldwide. One strategy to mitigate the impact lies in mining genetic resources, gene banks and land races, for useful plant characteristics.

Farmers for thousands of years have carefully selected plants best fit to withstand the harsh environments found on their fields. This led to breathtaking genetic variety, as each field has its own unique microclimate. The resulting land races, often ignored due to their lower productivity, are an unexploited resource that could yield tomorrow’s answers. Dr. Mathias Wissuwa of JIRCAS in his oral presentation in “Genetic Resources and Abiotic Stresses” emphasized the need to tap the hidden genetic potential in land races and gene bank accessions.

Advances in genome sequencing technologies have lowered costs to a point where thousands of gene bank accessions can be mapped to find rare alleles that could enhance nutrient capture, or increased tolerance to drought. Once identified, market assisted selection (MAS) can be used to improve the crop. IRRI used this method to first identify the SUB1 gene, which gives flood tolerance, and then breed it into commonly grown varieties, creating ‘scuba’ rice. Dr. Wissuwa and JIRCAS has made promising headway in identifying a gene that promotes crown root growth to increase nutrient capture efficiency of zinc and phosphorous. At the end of his presentation, he went to great lengths to stress MAS had nothing to do with GMOs.

Anna Pucher from the Uni Hohenheim took a similar approach to increase productivity and nutritional value of pearl millet. She characterized 360 west African pearl millet landraces, identifying agro-morphological traits such as yield, flowering time, and micronutrients in the seed. Using these genetic profiles, her ultimate aim is bio-fortification by increasing iron and zinc content. However, breeding stable and robust hybrids is not simple in pearl millet, and she had to identify molecular markers for male-fertility to make economic hybrid seed production possible.

Now that we have the computing power, the scope of genetic resources should be significantly broadened to the thousands of unexplored accessions in gene banks as well as still undocumented land races. The future of crop production depends on it.


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